Mike Smith: Championing Custom Donations

Mike Smith is a problem-solver at his core. With a knack for identifying needs and crafting innovative solutions, Mike’s entrepreneurial journey kicked off during his college years with a bold attempt to disrupt the textbook market. Despite the initial excitement surrounding his platform for student-to-student textbook sales, the venture failed to gain traction. 

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Mike made a pivotal decision to join the Navy, putting his entrepreneurial pursuits on hold. Upon concluding his military service in 2008, Mike embarked on a new chapter by founding a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating scholarships in honor of fallen military members. This endeavor aimed to support individuals pursuing higher education. However, navigating the transition from military service to civilian life posed its own set of challenges, highlighting the need for a more cohesive integration of skills and experiences. In short, while his specialty in the Navy didn’t directly apply to his goals in the private sector, the service did teach him about accountability and execution, skills that have benefited him as a founder. 

“I wouldn’t say ideas are cheap, but execution is everything. Having a great idea will get you nowhere if you never act. If you’re excited about this new product or idea, you’re the person with the passion to get it done. Take that passion and do something with it. But also keep in mind that to actually build a company and make that idea come to reality, in addition to passion, you’re also going to need a ton of perseverance and endurance.”

Integrating his web development expertise with his musical interests, in his spare time, Mike ventured into the realms of computer science, development, and digital music creation with a social 4-track mixer. He also created a centralized platform for musicians to showcase their talents and connect with local gig opportunities. 

Mike’s trajectory took a significant turn while heading up web operations for The Association of Former Students of Texas A&M. There, he jumped in to figure out how to grow a digital system, and how to get people to donate money through a website. He was immersed in all aspects of the massive higher ed nonprofit realm: directories, events, ordering class rings, etc. Intuitively, he identified a glaring disparity between traditional fundraising methods and the evolving technological landscape. A gaping chasm existed between the people raising funds and the web tools needed to enhance their fundraising strategies. Inspired to bridge this gap, Mike embarked on a mission to create a platform that would empower fundraisers with innately user-friendly tools while ensuring a seamless donation experience for donors.

Thus, Custom Donations was born in 2017. At its core, Custom Donations seeks to change the fundraising landscape by offering personalized giving solutions that prioritize donor engagement and ease of use. He spent his nights and weekends for years building the application, bringing together two very different worlds: web development and fundraising. After investigating how best to effectively take money through a website, creating one-click solutions, and providing custom solutions for organizations that do not have custom budgets, in 2020, Mike was finally prepared to step away from his full-time role and focus fully on Custom Donations. This is a question founders pose often: how do you know when to make the jump? For him, he just knew it was time to invest all of his energies into this endeavor.

COVID brought both advantages and disadvantages for Mike. You can imagine, like all of us, the bad. But, for a digital company, COVID forced all of us to live our lives more online than ever before. For nonprofits, the traditional funding events dried up and donors were forced to go online. Custom Donations’ secret sauce is personalized giving. They provide a custom, secure giving flow that is easy for nonprofits to manage on their own, an attractive solution for organizations that were having to shift their fundraising efforts.

This past year has been spent staging and setting up a strategy for growth. It’s not just creating the product that is challenging but figuring out how to scale. When Mike found out about the NextGEN Accelerator program, it didn’t matter to him that it was located in Greenville, SC while his family lived in Florence, SC. As a solopreneur, Mike did not have the network of support in Florence and he was at a point where he knew he could not grow his business without considerable support. So he made the drive to Greenville every week for 10 weeks. The Accelerator not only provided an array of connections but it also forced him to take a step back from the day-to-day operations and focus on the 5-year plan AND how to get there. 

After the first week, he knew he wanted to move to Greenville so he could be in that environment and surrounded by mentors and like-minded founders. He just had to convince his wife… Fortunately, with extended family residing near Greenville, it only took a few months of cajoling for the Smiths to move to Greenville. Closer to family but also close to a supportive entrepreneur ecosystem. And, in a city that defines work-life balance. He knew he could have moved to tech hubs San Francisco or Austin but wanted to be in a place that is good for everyone.

Post-Accelerator, Mike continues to have conversations with other program grads and mentors when he needs advice or recommendations from legal to tech support. It’s been key to meet people in preparation for the next step in his business. He knows relationship-building is also key to success.

“For first-time founders, so much of what you see showcased in the startup world may not be the best path forward for your company: This idealized path of pitching an idea and immediately getting funding and becoming a unicorn. The best funding is a customer. Build your product. Find product-market fit. If you take on funding before your product has traction or you figure out what customers are willing to pay for, you’ll likely run into problems.” 

Mike is vocal online about bootstrapping. He knows the most prudent path for him is to wait to get funding until there is no other way to move forward. Mike’s biggest challenge these days is how long everything takes. “Patience. Patience is the most challenging thing. Everything takes twice as long as you expect. Losses follow big wins, the lows squash the highs, and while it can be lonely, you have to persevere. Continue to move goal posts. Keep going after each small win. You have to keep moving forward. Focus on what you are doing right, and don’t dwell on the bad stuff, and keep pursuing your vision.” 

But, Mike looks back and sees that his biggest clients are still clients and have been for years. He keeps gaining and keeping big clients which is a solid validation for what he is building. 

Mike remains steadfast in his dedication to Custom Donations’ mission. From bootstrap beginnings to strategic partnerships and ongoing product development, he navigates the ever-changing entrepreneurial landscape with resilience and foresight.

Through the challenges inherent in the startup journey, we find the essence of entrepreneurship—a relentless pursuit of solutions, a commitment to continuous learning, and a steadfast belief in the transformative power of technology to drive positive change. As he continues championing Custom Donations, Mike exemplifies the spirit of innovation and resilience that defines true founders in today’s ever-evolving startup ecosystem.

SCRA announced in June 2024 that Custom Donations received a $50,000 Acceleration Grant.